Changes in French Pronunciation Since the Earliest French Settlements: Linguistics and Historical Demography

Marie-Hélène Côté (Université de Lausanne)

Based on an interdisciplinary approach that combines linguistics and historical demography, our study examines changes in pronunciation that have occurred since the beginnings of French settlement in the St. Lawrence Valley. In French Canada, the meticulous keeping of vital records and church records since the start of European colonization has made it possible to trace population movements at an individual level. The same records also provides an unparalleled wealth of information on French pronunciation, mainly through the systematic study of the spelling of family names. Indeed, the spelling of surnames tends to be much less stable than that of commonly used vocabulary. And variations in spelling often reflect changes in pronunciation that can be traced across time and space. The millions of available documents and their consistent temporal and geographic coverage over multiple centuries make it possible to model, in a strikingly precise way, changes in various characteristics of pronunciation across regions and generations.

In this way, the great frequency with which surnames appear in official documents and the substantial variability in their spellings (before the spelling of family names became standardized around the second half of the nineteenth century) provide a window on the history of pronunciation. The side-by-side analysis of older demographic and linguistic data has led to spectacular advances in knowledge on the origins and evolution of French in Canada. Beyond highlighting the factors driving phonetic change, it has been possible to document the geographic and temporal distribution of many characteristics of pronunciation on a micro-historical scale. Such use of demographic records has opened new opportunities for interdisciplinary research involving linguistics and historical demography, two fields whose methods have otherwise rarely been combined. In turn, linguistic analysis adds value to the demographic data, through a better understanding of changes in spelling.

Our study focuses on the pre-Confederation period. It may eventually be possible to trace the evolution of certain characteristics of pronunciation into the contemporary period through the study of audio recordings starting in the mid-twentieth century. Examples include the ALEC recordings (Atlas linguistique de l’Est du Canada, 1971), which researchers have yet to use, and the Phonologie du français contemporain corpus (PFC, 2010–2019).

From a temporal perspective, we intend to analyze differences across generations (by exploring changes in spelling patterns from one generation to the next) and across decades (by comparing the relative frequency with which certain forms appear).

From a spatial perspective, we are exploring  the dynamics shaping the emergence of new linguistic forms at both the regional and provincial levels. For instance, certain regions may have initiated a particular change, whereas others may have resisted its adoption. But while considering both the temporal and spatial contexts, the study remains focused on understanding the development of linguistic forms by considering how changes in spoken language have been reflected in variable spellings.